A Tribute to Turner, Rain Steam Speed / Joachim Schõnfeldt
Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin (the writing is on the wall)
La première expression au cinéma est liée à l’activité de performance art pratique dans le cadre de Possession Arts, groupe de performance art dont j’ai été membre fondateur en 1982. Il s’agit d’un rapport plastique à l’image et d’une conception de tableaux mouvant de narration non linéaire, avant tout expressionniste. Nous étions des rebelles sans cause, critique, mais non-engagés dans la lutte pour la liberté de la majorité des Sud-africains. C’est à cette époque, que j’ai pris par hasard un livre mal rangé (dans la section art dramatique) sur le Cinéma direct. Du cinéma documentaire et de Jean Rouch, je ne savais strictement rien ; je suis tombée sur une citation de Jean Rouch qui disait quelque chose comme : « Il m’est plus intéressant de filmer la réalité tel qu’elle est provoquée par la caméra (et ma présence) que de prétendre pouvoir la filmer tel quelle. » La lecture de cette phrase a bouleversé mon esprit à jamais. La réalité n’existait pas ; il n’y avait donc que le point de vue, ce que l’on inclut et que l’on exclut. A partir, de ce moment-là, plus rien n’allez être pareil. Depuis cette époque, il y a une lutte entre l’image plastique et improvisée et l’expression du réel, et une recherche de l’image idéale, celle qui exprime les deux à la fois ; broder à partir de la réalité.
Polaroid Story 1983, images and text / Wilhelm Hahn
Rina Sherman’s studio in Brixton, Johannesburg, 1983
Rough à revoir
I put an official end to my chicken fetishism on the day some woman called me from the South of France, « Vous êtes la femme aux poulets ? » The publication of this book comes 30 years after « Schreber’s Chicken, » a performance at the Market theatre the late Wilhelm Hahn and I did with Possession Arts, the performance art group of which we were both founder members with John Nankin as spearhead of the movement (talented theatre and performance artist on FB and runs the Pos Arts page on FB as well). In this piece, I treated the several thousand chickens moods known to the ancient Sumerian cultures. My parents participated, my father in his hand sewn suit fixed the middle distance from the second row, I suppose wondering how he got himself there, but who knows what people really think, and my mother anarchist cut up a raw chicken and handed it to members of the audience. Flabelula, my pet chicken was on stage with me and some people flew the theatre I suppose thinking that sacrifice would be the next obvious step. Nothing of the kind! When I took that no return plane, she was given to Margie, the woman who worked in our house, who in turn gave her to her parents who lived in a village in some remote and unimportant country side, otherwise they would have been expropriated, where she landed up in a three legged iron pot on the fire, an obvious end to a hen with a story.
This is The Fort in Hillbrow. It was the offer of this huge site, then disused but laden with apartheid history, that destroyed Possession Arts. It is today the location of the Constitutional Court complex. After the mayor of Johannesburg, Counsellor Gadd, for reasons of his own, had set his mind on this being the proper – and possible – site for the art space that we had proposed (for which we initially sought the use of some abandoned council property, like the old prefabs in Newtown) everybody – within and without Possession Arts – became obsessed with this idea and it dragged us to our doom.
It was remarkable that the mayor’s people had not informed him – did not know – that at the core of Possession were people associated with the old house at 62 Raleigh Street, that had been knocked down around the remaining tenants (literally) a few months earlier as a civic district improvement project of his own. While on the campaign trail for the previous year’s municipal elections in his ward, Yeoville, he had promised the electorate that he would have this house demolished, if re-elected, as it was inhabited by drunks, hobos, and the lawless. Actually the homeless were our neighbours, on the vacant lot between 62 and the Library, whose fountain served them running water.
And the name Possession, while obviously referencing our attitude to The Work, to a way of working , and more prosaically to the idea of imagistic object-based performance as a way of constructing meaning, rather than relying primarily on verbal texts, was actually inspired by the observation over many months of the very group of homeless people that so agitated Mayor Gadd and his voters. They lived on the vacant lot adjoining my room window at #62. I watched them get up in the morning, watched the man called Kaptein shave in the library fountain, watched him get the cooking fire started. One day I came home to a strange smell in the house – Chas was bathing (while having a completely ordinary conversation) a battered man whose leg had turned gangrenous. In their utter poverty (conventionally speaking) they were, it seemed to me, as possessed as any suburbanite by some mythology of a proper urban life. Within this mythology they belonged, they had ownership, agency. They had created a way of life that was sustainable (up to a point, as they lacked all access to e.g. health services beyond self-help) and I could see no reason why – if they could survive in this way – we (I) could not dedicate ourselves (myself) to living off the economic treadmill and simply concentrate on making and showing art. The name Possession memorialised their lack of possessions, their Possession. When the first meeting was called and the proposition was discussed – that the various contingents present join in a campaign to source a completely free art space run by all of us as a front or umbrella organisation under whose name the various sub-groups and individuals could build up, or petition for, whatever resources their work required – three issues surfaced almost instantly. The first was to name the group. Many of the contingents present had well established identities. For instance The Weekend Theatre group who had turned the lounge of a Braamfontein flat into a venue for their plays . I had used the name Possession Theatre to characterise my own search for a venue. Someone suggested that we use this name « temporarily » , and we all agreed to add the « arts » as the group was multi-disciplinary.
We then had to elect a steering committee. I recused myself. I had at that time strongly held ideas about organisations, and the way in which they often seemed to serve the interests of their founders and managers, while raising funds on the basis of communitarian or egalitarian programmes. I thought that I could be more useful as a catalyst rather than as someone trying to control the group. I proposed Ivor Powell as chairman. He was acceptable to a broad range of the people present, he was articulate, calm, a university lecturer and art historian. He seemed the least likely of all to be a divisive and alienating figurehead.
Then in discussing how to proceed, how to gain the attention of the owners of buildings, funders, etc (that we were all convinced would eventually give us what we desired) someone suggested that we should start by staging another evening of short performances, in the mode of those that Joachim, Frank, Jeffrey and myself had put on at Wits a few weeks earlier. This was a very popular decision, and we all adjourned to the Mayfair Hotel for a drink.
These short performance concerts became the primary activity of the group. They were never intended to be more than a statement of intent, sketches, possibilities. They were very popular, and – in their specific chaos – interesting , And exploratory, especially when seen, as was forced on us by circumstance , in a crazy montage of unintended correlations, wildly different works, conceived in isolation, yet making some kind of greater sense in concert, as if intentionally. If we were a loose and perhaps opportunistic alliance rather than a movement, this work did generate a shared vocabulary and language.
We never really got beyond this form, although we did attempt to publish a journal/magazine/collection; we made a few films and photo-comics, held various festivals, put on original plays, curated – as group – an exhibition of installation in an empty flat. But we never achieved the goal of finding a free building, a place where we could work.